Hunger in Palestine

By Peter Hansen
The Hindu, December 10, 2002
http://www.thehindu.com/2002/12/10/stories/2002121004291200.ht
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[The writer is Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.]

The world has grown used to the idea that hunger manifests itself only in the hollow cheeks and distended stomachs of an African famine. But today in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, an insidious hunger has the Palestinian people in its grip. Hidden in the anaemic blood of children or lost in the statistics of stunted growth, a dreadful, silent malnutrition is stalking the Palestinians. The populations of Gaza and the West Bank have lived for over two years with checkpoints, closures and curfews that have ravaged their economy. Over 50 per cent are now unemployed and more than 60 per cent are living below the poverty line.

The effect of this economic collapse was felt first in the erosion of family savings, followed by increased indebtedness and then the forced sale of household possessions. The Palestinian extended family and community networks have saved the territories from the absolute collapse that might have been found elsewhere in the face of such rapid decline. Every dollar is shared in the occupied territory. Anyone with an income, or a cousin working abroad, supports as many as seven other adults.

Nevertheless, after two hard years of the intifada (Palestinian uprising), poverty is increasingly being felt in the stomach. In the terminology of experts, the Palestinians are suffering in the main from micronutrient deficiencies - what the World Health Organisation calls the "Hidden Hunger." It may be less dramatic than the protein-energy malnutrition that stalks African emergencies, but on the scale that it is being found among the Palestinians it is just as serious. Micronutrient deficient children fail to grow and develop normally; their cognition is damaged, often severely and irreversibly; their immune systems are compromised; in both adults and children, mental and physical capacities are impaired. In extreme cases, blindness and death result. The mental and physical development of a generation of Palestinian children hangs in the balance. An ongoing study funded by the United States Agency for International Development has found that four out of five children in Gaza and the West Bank have inadequate iron and zinc intake, deficiencies that cause anaemia and weaken the immune system. Over half the children in each territory have inadequate caloric and vitamin A intake.

The stark fact is that 22 per cent of the Palestinian children are suffering from acute or chronic malnutrition for purely man- made reasons. No drought has hit Gaza and the West Bank, no crops have failed and the shops are often full of food. But the failure of the peace process and the destruction of the economy by Israel's closure policy have had the effect of a terrible natural disaster. Nursing and pregnant mothers too are suffering. On an average, they consume 15-20 per cent fewer calories per day than they did before the outbreak of strife in 2000. The consequent anaemia, low folic acid intake and lack of proteins threaten both their health and the normal development of their children.

The United Nation's relief agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, is the largest aid organisation in the territories. Before the start of the intifada, it was providing food aid to around 11,000 families in the West Bank and Gaza - families that had lost their breadwinner or were otherwise especially at risk. For the last two years, as part of its emergency programme, the UNRWA food programme has grown to 2,20,000 families - or almost half the Palestinian population of the territories. To fund this huge food security effort, and its other emergency activities, UNRWA has turned to the international community with a number of emergency appeals. The latest appeal, to cover emergency operations for the first half of next year, has just been launched and contains a request for $32 million to provide food for Gaza and the West Bank. It would be a sad indictment of the world's priorities if funding for this feeding programme were not forthcoming because of the invisible nature of the crisis. There are as yet no skeletal faces in Gaza for the television cameras to record, no bloated bellies to shock the world to action. Instead, the Palestinians face hidden hunger and the quiet horror of a generation that will be physically and mentally stunted for the rest of their lives.

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